Historical Context

Return to Your Name film guide
This section provides historical context that is key to understanding modern Japan, a nation that defines itself in terms of both a mythologized rural “tradition” and cosmopolitan, technologized urban life. I suggest that teachers become familiar with this material and use it as necessary to supplement teaching and class discussion of the film. Key terms appear in bold face.

Tokyo and Japanese Modernization

The beginning of Japan’s modern period dates to 1854, when American Commodore Matthew Perry “opened” the nation to international trade after sailing into the harbor of Tokyo Bay on a gunship. The ensuing reform-oriented Meiji Restoration of 1868 was a response to foreign incursion that allowed the Japanese state to Westernize the country. A feudal, largely agrarian system was replaced by an industrialization policy and reorientation of social life towards large cities. The port of Yokohama and Tokyo grew quickly. The capital city’s dramatic transformation is captured visually in the artist Kobayashi Kiyochika’s woodblock prints, introduced by James Ulak on the MIT Visualizing Cultures website here. Many of his prints, Ulak notes, are fascinated with the way in which modern technologies, especially electricity and trains, changed the city. While the work of many artists working in the “Meiji Westernization” genre presented newness with flourish, Ulak sees Kobayashi Kiyochika’s work reflecting a more ambivalent position: “Obliteration, absence, the vanishing of old Japan in the face of foreign intrusions had imbued his Famous Places of Tokyo series with its nagging sense of fragility and uncertainty.” The emergence of the city signaled the disappearance of an older Japan, a way of life that became increasingly mythologized as an “authentic” Japanese essence. Furusato, a word that means hometown but is also more generally an “ideological representation of national origin,” is the new city’s opposite (Thelen 219). In his article on Your Name, Japan scholar Timo Thelen explains: “In contrast to the cities that emerged since the late 19th century, which are usually considered as anonymous and cold, a furusato indicates features such as strong social bonds and family networks, lived traditions and religious customs” (219). While over 90% of Japanese people today live in cities, many still nostalgically identify with hometowns, places where they may have spent time as children visiting older relatives.

The Taishō period (1912 – 1926) saw even more urbanization and diversification of cultural life in cities. The optimistic promise of modernization, a sense of man’s mastery over nature and technology, however, was cruelly shattered when the devastating 1923 Great Kantō earthquake destroyed Tokyo and Yokohama. Earthquakes were hardly new; Japan is after all located on a tectonic fault line. The scale of devastation, though, was compounded by urbanization itself, meaning there was more city that could be destroyed than ever before. Nevertheless, the destruction of Tokyo was also an opportunity for rebuilding an even more modern city. Furthermore, this blank canvas allowed the Japanese state to build something more abstract, the nationalist and imperial ideology necessary to substantiate a relatively new political system and give it mythic weight (Ulak, “Tokyo Modern”). The reconstruction project also required extensive natural resources; resources that were extracted from Japanese colonial holdings in the northern Chinese region of Manchuria (ibid). The development of the modern city was thus reliant on Japan’s growing colonial project. Before the beginning of WWII, which would again devastate Tokyo, the city had grown to a population of about 7 million.


The Postwar & Nuclear Japan

By the end of the war, the fire bombings of Tokyo, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as various other bombing missions, had destroyed 40% of Japan’s urban areas. The nation’s economy was wrecked and American occupation suspended Japan’s national sovereignty. While economic reconstruction and democratization were key elements of the occupation program, the United States’ presence also implicated Japan in American Cold War politics. American policymakers wanted Japan to participate militarily in the war in Korea, for example, though that plan was abandoned after significant protest from the left and right. Although Japan did not send forces to fight in the war, the Korean conflict was an economic boon that helped the nation quickly develop, complicating the country’s commitment to “peace.” The apocalyptic atomic explosions in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were foundational to the postwar narrative about Japan’s embrace of peace and rejection of militarism. The militarized alliance with the United States, which saw Japan as part of a US network against communism in East Asia, was thus politically sensitive. Filmmaker Linda Hoagland describes the tense atmosphere of political protest in the 1950s in her piece on Japanese reportage painters:

The genesis of the so-called peace movement in postwar Japan actually dates to late 1949, when U.S. plans to turn Japan into a bulwark against Communism first became clear. Protest intensified when the terms of the secretly-negotiated security treaty were disclosed in 1951 and 1952, and grew even more intense in the several years that followed, as the concrete presence of an unexpectedly extensive web of post-occupation U.S. bases and facilities materialized.

The growth of labor movements and popularity of socialist politics in a postwar period of extreme poverty and precarity were met with anxiety and repression by the US occupation authorities and the US backed government in Japan. Japan resumed sovereignty in 1952. The price, according to many observers, was a bilateral security treaty signed with the United States in 1951 that protected the US military interests in Japan. When the treaty was up for revision in 1960, further enshrining American power, Japan’s streets exploded in the Anpo protests, so named after the treaty. Counter-protests by right-wing groups and the aggressive actions of the police resulted in violent confrontations. The protestors failed in their efforts to prevent ratification and the treaty became law. The unprecedented scope of the movement, however, and its political fallout has been hailed as win for Japanese democracy. The protests are explained in detail in Justin Jesty’s “Tokyo 1960: Days of Rage and Grief,” an essay accompanied by the visual narrative of Hamaya Hiroshi’s often harrowing photographic record of the events. A wave of anti-war student protests in 1968 and a protest campaign against the seizure of farmland to build Tokyo’s Narita airport are likewise iconic in Japan’s modern history.

Like the postwar cultures of political protest, Japan’s relationship to nuclear power cannot be separated from the United States. During the American occupation, information about and images of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings and their aftermath were highly controlled. Photographs and footage of the bombs were censored, but artists like Akamatsu Toshiko & Maruki Iri were able to display paintings documenting the event. Nuclear topics were extremely sensitive for an occupying force now concerned with the reconstruction of the nation their own bombs had destroyed. The first photos of atomic devastation were not printed until 1952, after the US occupation ended. Only two years after, in 1954, Japanese fishermen were exposed to nuclear fallout from American testing in the Bikini Atoll. The incident caused considerable anti-American sentiment. Also in 1954, Godzilla addressed fears about nuclear power through the figure of a monster created by radiation. A 2016 film, Shin Godzilla, or “New Godzilla,” rebooted the monster for a post 3/11 Japan. As before, the film contained the nuclear threat, the monster was vanquished, and Tokyo was again spared total destruction.

Despite the anxieties surrounding nuclear technology, the American government promoted peaceful nuclear technologies as part of Japan’s reconstruction. The historian Morris Low writes about these efforts as the “Atomic Marshall Plan,” an economic recovery program that mirrored US efforts to reconstruct postwar Western Europe. During the 1950s, various exhibitions introduced the idea of nuclear power, rebranding nuclear technology as a developmental tool, not apocalyptic weapon. The opening of Atoms for Peace, an exhibit put on by the United States Information Service in Japan in 1955, was recorded in a promotional film titled Power for Peace. In the film, viewers are introduced to a wide range of uses for nuclear technology, including medical and industrial uses. By the mid-1960s, plans for nuclear power development were realized in Japan’s first such facility, the Tokai-No. 1, imported from Britain. Within the next decade, nuclear reactors for Japan’s power companies were produced domestically. Before the 3/11 disaster, Japan, a relatively carbon-poor nation, relied on 54 nuclear power reactors to provide 30% of its total electricity production (“Nuclear Power Plants in Japan”).

3/11 Narratives

On March 11, 2011, a 9.1 magnitude earthquake hit Japan’s northern Tōhoku region, its epicenter about 80 miles from the city of Sendai. A massive tsunami whose maximum height reached over 100 ft struck Japan’s eastern coast soon after the quake. In coastal Fukushima, the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power’s power supply was damaged and disabled by the tsunami, as a result, its nuclear cores could not be appropriately cooled. Three of four reactors at the plant melted down within three days, resulting in one of the world’s largest nuclear disasters. Radioactive materials were released into the surrounding area, both land and sea, leading to mandatory evacuation and the creation of an 80 square mile exclusion zone. The tsunami and earthquake resulted in over 20,000 deaths, though many victims remain officially missing, their bodies never recovered. The economic losses to the region affected by the disaster are also staggering. The nuclear meltdowns have not been shown to have directly caused deaths, but over 100,000 people were forced to suddenly leave their homes in the wake of the disaster. Decontamination efforts have allowed some residents to return, but a smaller exclusion zone remains in force to this day and 40,000 survivors remain displaced (Gerster & Maly 188).

In the aftermath of the nuclear disaster, both the Japanese government and the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) have come under scrutiny. The former is accused of not communicating transparently about the effects of the radiation contamination, and the latter has been proven negligent in maintaining safety standards that could have prevented the disaster. The meltdowns in Fukushima caused concern about Japan’s remaining nuclear infrastructure. Since 2012, when all of Japan’s nuclear power plants went offline pending safety review, only 10 reactors have been turned back on after having met the stricter safety standards required after 3/11. The nuclear lobby, a powerful actor in Japanese politics since the 1970s, has come under increasing suspicion by activists and citizens concerned by these corporations’ influence over government policy. As opposed to the unforeseeable natural disaster of the earthquake and tsunami, the man-made Fukushima meltdowns could have been prevented with proper oversight and by rooting out corruption. Indeed, the issue of the meltdowns remains contentious in Japan, where the government repeatedly minimized the scale of the disaster, supposedly to prevent mass panic. Politicians like Abe Shinzō were also criticized for distancing Fukushima from Tokyo in their lobbying for the Japanese Summer Olympics. While Fukushima radiation reached the capital (indeed, it reached the United States), the impact of the disaster was minimal in the capital. The regions that suffered most were relatively rural and peripheral. Critics of Japan’s nuclear program contend that nuclear power plants built in such regions constitute a form of “internal colonialism” (Thelen 223). Electricity that supports the economic development of cities is situated in non-urban areas because the potential threat of a nuclear disaster is not acceptable to the urban areas that benefit from electric supply.

The 3/11 disasters have had a profound impact on Japan, both domestically and in its international perception. In her book on post-3/11 Japan, Tamaki Mihic argues that while narratives of resilience and Japanese embrace of community have generated positive sentiment about Japan, survivors of the accident in Tōhoku chafe at the characterization of their unique endurance, wondering when they will be asked to keep on enduring (16). Resilience, after all, implies that people must continuously accept poor circumstances. Government authorities, Mihic writes, emphasized kizuna, or affective bonds between people and places, to bolster positive responses to reconstruction efforts (12-13). The word kizuna has since become intertwined with the narrative of the 3/11, mobilized to produce a “disaster nationalism” that lauded Japan’s exceptional response to the calamity (Mihic 13-14). Positive characterizations of Japan’s response to the disaster, however, are counterbalanced by the sense that the meltdowns were “Made in Japan,” possible only due to the secretive and insular Japanese political culture (19). Newly resistant to the myth of safety promulgated by pro-nuclear groups, the Japanese antinuclear movement gained an unprecedented following in the wake of the disasters. In 2012, 200,000 protestors organized by the Metropolitan Coalition Against Nukes (MCAN) took to the streets of Tokyo to protest the government’s decision to restart two nuclear reactors in western Japan. Protests soon spread to other parts of the nation. The scale of these protests is reminiscent of the enormous outpouring of citizen concern during the 1960 Anpo demonstrations. While Japan’s antinuclear movement emerged in the 1970s together with the development of Japanese nuclear technology, Japanese sociologist Oguma Eiji posits that negative reactions to leftwing terrorist activities in the early 1970s had soured society on leftist politics and economic recovery stabilized Japanese politics enough to placate many protestors (Oguma). A stagnant economic and political situation prior to 3/11, however, primed a public dissatisfied with its government’s policies to come together in activism. Participants in the protests:

…included farmers and fisher folk confronting radioactive contamination, housewives alert to the radioactive contamination of foodstuffs and the special risk to infants and children, intellectuals critical of nuclear power in an earthquake-prone nation, and other social groups that engaged in anti-nuclear movements (Oguma).

In response, the government promised to move away from nuclear power completely by 2040. The nuclear question has reemerged recently as the Japanese government announced plans to release 1.3 million tons of contaminated but treated water into the ocean. The move has proven controversial both at home and abroad. Meanwhile, rising energy costs are leading some to reconsider their opposition to nuclear power and more reactors may be turned on soon to provide electricity to the nation.